Workers Vanguard No. 1004
8 June 2012
Quebec: Mass Defiance of Anti-Protest Law
Broad Support for Student Strike
JUNE 4—The nearly four-month student strike in Quebec, which was sparked by proposed massive tuition hikes, has now escalated into a major social crisis. Fueling protest is the repressive Law 78—popularly known as the “loi des matraques” (law of the nightsticks). This measure was enacted on May 18 by the widely despised provincial Liberal government after up to 200,000 students throughout Quebec had boycotted classes and shut down the campuses with mass pickets, often in defiance of court injunctions. Students have faced brutal, near daily assaults by the police. The emergency law bans any protests in or outside the schools, severely restricts all other protests and threatens fines of up to $125,000 for groups who defy these edicts. Even advertising such protests is now illegal, as is supporting any kind of strike at a university or college.
The evening that Law 78 was enacted, at least 10,000 students and their supporters took to the streets of Montreal. Protests continued over the following nights and the police declared them illegal, moving in with tear gas, sound cannons and pepper spray and staging mass roundups. Altogether, more than 2,500 people have now been arrested during the student strike (see “Defend Quebec Students!” above). This total far exceeds the arrests even under the War Measures Act in October 1970, when the federal government in Ottawa suspended civil liberties and imprisoned hundreds of leftists, nationalists and union leaders in a move to suppress widespread social struggle over national rights for the French-speaking Québécois.
The Quebec government clearly hoped that the threat of stepped-up repression and huge fines would quell the student protests and smash the strike. But the opposite happened. Four days later on May 22, thousands of trade unionists marching behind union banners as well as large numbers of teachers, parents and high school students joined a 300,000-strong demonstration in Montreal. CLASSE, the more left-wing, anarchist-influenced student union representing the majority of strikers, refused to announce the route of the march and thus effectively dared the government to ban the “illegal” protest and arrest its leaders. The immense size of the protest and substantial union presence stayed the hand of the police.
CLASSE had called on other organizations opposed to the emergency law to join it in active defiance. The union bureaucracy, other striking student groups and leaders of the petty-bourgeois nationalist Québec Solidaire responded by saying that they could support only “peaceful and legal” protests. Nonetheless, a significant majority of protesters went with CLASSE when the demonstration split about ten minutes into the march.
Despite a daily media barrage demonizing “violent” students, polls show that a majority of the francophone Québécois oppose the emergency law. Many are wearing red squares, the symbol of support to the students and opposition to the crippling student debt (i.e., “being in the red”). As the May 22 demo passed a major downtown hospital, elderly wheelchair-bound patients hooked up to IVs sat on the sidewalk with red squares pinned to their hospital gowns, applauding and raising their fists. The protesters responded with massive cheers. Nightly “pots and pans” marches against Law 78 have broken out in Montreal and other cities, emulating protests during the recent student strikes in Chile.
Having earlier, and repeatedly, vowed that there was nothing to negotiate, the Quebec government did an about-face and resumed talks with the student federations. But the negotiations collapsed on May 31 after the students rejected a gratuitously insulting “offer” to cut one dollar off the planned 75 percent tuition hike. Liberal premier Jean Charest soon after raised the prospect of further repression, slandering CLASSE as “people who are threatening the Québécois” (La Presse, 1 June).
Our comrades intervening in the demonstrations reported that many students put forward the notion that better “democracy” is the answer to government repression. In fact, “democracy” does not exist in a vacuum but rather its content is determined by the class that rules society. Under capitalism, democracy is a thin veil to hide the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which is enforced by its state machinery of violence, namely the cops, courts and prisons—the very forces that are beating and jailing strikers.
While campus activists clearly welcome support from the unions, there is little sense of the unique social power of the working class. Students do not have any direct relationship to the means of production and lack the social power to beat back the capitalist onslaught. This power resides with the working class, which can withhold its labor and bring the capitalist system to a grinding halt. In the French-language supplement that our comrades distributed at the May 22 mass protest, which appeared in English translation as “Student Strike Shakes Quebec” in WV No. 1003 (25 May), we noted: “Student struggle can certainly spark broader social battles, as the current strike shows. But ultimately the only way forward is to ally with the working class.”
It also is in the interest of workers to champion the struggle for free, quality education for all, with a state-paid living stipend and free childcare for students. In the face of mounting debt servitude to the banks, there should be a fight to abolish the student debt. Since all reforms wrested from the bourgeoisie are temporary and reversible under capitalism, such struggles on behalf of students, workers and the oppressed must be linked to the necessary task of overthrowing this system through socialist revolution.
CLASSE has called for workers to strike in solidarity with the students. But in no way is it advancing a perspective of working-class struggle against the very capitalist system that deprives youth and working people of their basic needs. Like the other two student federations leading the strike, CLASSE seeks to refurbish the education system within the framework of capitalism. A short-lived May 5 deal that the CLASSE leaders endorsed—which was later widely rejected by students—simply tinkered with the terms of austerity and could easily have spelled wage cuts and layoffs for university and college employees.
The abortive deal was brokered in part by the union bureaucracy, which has done its part to attempt to restore “social peace.” Despite the broad anger among working people against the Liberal government, the potentially powerful trade unions of Quebec have not been mobilized for strike action or anything more than an occasional contingent at a demonstration. The union misleaders are firmly wedded to a class-collaborationist outlook, as expressed by their support to one or another bourgeois nationalist party.
The French-speaking Québécois have long been forcibly retained in a “united” Canada. We call for independence for Quebec as a means to combat Anglo chauvinism and address the national antagonisms that divide the workers of both nations. The mutually reinforcing nationalisms of the Maple Leaf and fleur de lys serve to tie workers to their own exploiters, poisoning prospects for united class struggle.
When in the provincial government in the 1990s, the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ) carried out sweeping attacks on the working class and social programs in the interests of the francophone bourgeoisie. A darling of the reformist left, Québec Solidaire employs populist rhetoric to attract those dissatisfied with the PQ, keeping them firmly in the grip of bourgeois nationalism. Its founding “principles and orientation” foster terrible illusions in a “reformed” bourgeois rule, upholding “democracy,” pacifism and environmentalism while eschewing socialism or class struggle.
Struggle against the all-sided attacks of the capitalist rulers must proceed from an understanding that the interests of the workers and their exploiters are irreconcilable. Only after the working class, standing at the head of all the oppressed, sweeps away the capitalist state and expropriates the bourgeoisie will the right of all to free, quality education, much less jobs, housing and health care, be secured. We are dedicated to winning advanced workers and radical youth to the struggle to forge a revolutionary workers party, one that can unite capitalism’s many victims behind the social power of the proletariat in the fight for a socialist egalitarian society.